A 100-Mile Ultramarathon Reveals the True Craziness of the Long-Distance Runner

updated 07/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 01:00AM

In the history of human endeavor, it will be marked somewhere between gallantry and madness. The challenge was brutally simple: to hurl one's body at the highest speed possible across 100 miles of some of the most inhospitable terrain on the face of the planet. The course ran through six-foot snowdrifts and an eight-foot river, up 17,040 feet of mountain and down 21,970 feet of valley, in temperatures ranging from 25° to 110° F. Yet 250 of the world's most dedicated, disciplined and arguably demented runners accepted the challenge of the Western States Endurance Run this year—and 35 more had to be turned away because the field was already too large. "You're pushing human endurance beyond the point where anybody knows what the hell is happening," the race medical director, Dr. Robert Lind, told the entrants as he explained the tests—blood pressure, pulse, blood and urine—that awaited them at five checkpoints during the race. "If you went into a hospital and had these tests done, every one of you would be rushed to the Intensive Care Unit."

The run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., began in 1973 as an unintended offshoot of the famed Tevis Cup wilderness horse race. When rider Gordy Ainsleigh's horse came up lame, Ainsleigh decided to go the distance by shanks' mare instead. Finishing in 23 hours and 42 minutes, he beat 22 horses. "When I saw that, I thought I had witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event," says Dr. Lind. "I didn't believe the human body could do it." Since then the distance has been covered in 24 hours or less 147 times—and now the Western States Endurance stands alone as the ultimate foot race, an ultramarathon for the truly obsessed.

In the hours before the race began this year, the attitude of entrants ranged from nonchalance to an almost religious fervor. Andy Gonzales, who finished first in 1977 and 1978, flirted and bragged at the prerace briefing. Nicki Lewis, a 47-year-old mother of five who makes her living as a rollerskating instructor, announced, "I want to see what I have in me. I'm doing this to show other women my age that life is not over." Last year's winner, Mike Catlin, 28, who holds the course record of 16 hours 11 minutes, kept to himself, out of shyness or tension. There was much to be tense about. Soon they would be crossing the Sierra Nevada, disturbing rattlesnakes and bears in territory generally inaccessible save by helicopter, horse or foot. Many of them would be assisted by checkpoint crews armed with Vaseline, sunscreen and training food—Nutrament, Gatorade, chocolate and vitamins. But the steep, slippery terrain could snap an ankle at the slightest misstep, and a navigational error on one particular turn meant running off a cliff. While training two nights before, Jim Benston, 35, clad only in a thin shirt and shorts, went astray on the course and spent the night in a hole he dug in the snow. As Martha Maricle, a 46-year-old clerk-typist, laconically observes: "It's a great way to see the country."

Phil Lenihan, marketing director of the Women's Pro Golf Tour and two-time veteran of the race, says he holds the course record for "45-year-old bagpipe players." This year, true to form, he adjured fellow runners to the starting line at 4:30 a.m. skirling Scotland the Brave. The entrants ranged in age from 18 to 60; there were 26 women among them, 75 runners over 40 and several reformed drug addicts and alcoholics in pursuit of a finer madness. They all had at least one thing in common: Nobody slept very well the night before. "There are two kinds of people who run this race," said magazine publisher Doug Latimer, 42, a three-time entrant and a favorite to win (last year's time, 16:34), "the macho types who want to prove how tough they are, and the romantics who do it for the adventure. The romantics perform better because they have a mystical feeling about it." The soft-spoken Latimer and the reclusive Mike Catlin, a graduate student in physiology, were clearly among the romantics; ex-champ Gonzales was not. "I can't believe how calm and collected I feel," he crowed just before the start. "My confidence level is pretty high."

War whoops greeted the starter's pistol at 5 a.m., and the pack trotted off toward the first medical checkpoint at Robinson Flat 32 miles away—six miles farther than a regular marathon. Four and a half hours out, Phil Lenihan became the first casualty. "I cried when I dropped out," the bagpiper admitted later, nursing a twisted ankle. By Robinson Flat, 20 runners were decommissioned, one with a broken rib and punctured lung from a fall, the others with less serious injuries. Most of the runners had massive blisters, but they changed shoes and slogged on, with 68 miles to go.

Just over halfway through, in the 90° heat of checkpoint Devil's Thumb, Latimer turned up seriously dehydrated, his weight down to 143 from 151 at the start, his last 20 miles made miserable by persistent diarrhea. At this point ex-champ Gonzales collapsed, discouraged and exhausted. Mike Catlin cruised through a few minutes later, looking unnaturally fit. By the 60.2-mile mark at Michigan Bluff, Sally Edwards, 32, had taken a commanding lead among the women. Exhaustion had caused 90 other runners to drop out—including Ruth Anderson, a 50-year-old nuclear chemist who holds her age group record for 100 miles on a track. By the 74.8-mile mark, at White Oak Flat, the race was clearly between Catlin and Latimer: they reached the checkpoint before 5:30 p.m., and the field was strung out far behind them. One runner, Chicago hairdresser Roy Jasinski, 45, would not reach White Oak Flat until 12 hours later.

The agony intensified after the runners were ferried across the American River by motorboat. Latimer, now feeling every mile, pushed himself hard, bettering last year's course record to this point. But at 6 o'clock, when he reached the Maine Bar checkpoint, 81.4 miles into the race, his legs suddenly locked in excruciating spasms and would no longer support him. Catlin's crew packed their rival's legs in ice and Catlin himself offered to help when he arrived a few minutes later. Latimer insisted that his friend go on, and five hours later, at 11:35, Catlin loped across the finish line to claim the race's only material rewards: a gold medal, a sterling silver belt buckle and another year's purchase on the Wendell Robie Cup (named for the man who blazed the trail on horseback in 1955). How did it feel to win such a race? "I want to lie down," he gasped.

Twelve hours later, at the victory banquet, almost all the runners—including several who had been evacuated from the course by helicopter—seemed unaccountably rested and healthy. Catlin accepted his honors, and Sally Edwards, the first woman finisher, was presented with a trophy. All of the 124 men and women who finished the race had won in the most important sense, and although most of them spoke of it with becoming modesty, all agreed with the sentiment of Roy Jasinski—who did not make it to the end. "This," he said, "is the ultimate high."

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